C.J. “Pappy” Hart, a drag-racing pioneer who helped popularize the sport by conducting races in the 1950s on unused runways at Orange County -- now John Wayne -- Airport, died Saturday after suffering a stroke. He was 93.
Hart managed a number of drag strips in Southern California, but is remembered best for operating, with his wife, Peggy, the Santa Ana Dragstrip on Sundays from 1950 to 1959. It shut down when the expanding airport required the space.
When partners Hart and Creighton Hunter opened the Santa Ana strip, it was the first to collect fees from spectators and race entrants. Airport authorities agreed to rent Hart and Hunter the runway for 10% of the gate. Admission was 50 cents, later increased to $1, and racers paid $1 to compete. Attendance for the opener was about 500, with about 50 cars competing. The track averaged about 2,500 spectators for Sunday races, but Hart said that attendance for the final day was more than 4,000.
Hart said he decided to organize professional races at Santa Ana after he and Hunter had conducted clandestine races on an abandoned Navy airfield, now Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. When they were chased off by Marines, Hart decided there ought to be a place where cars could race legally.
Shortly after the first races were held at Santa Ana, Hart bought out Hunter’s interest and made the strip a family operation.
Later, Hart operated Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington for many years, ran drag races at the Taft Airport and at Riverside International Raceway, and served as a consultant to a number of tracks. He also was a participant in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Safety Safari, a group that canvassed drag strips across the country to establish common rules and safety standards.
“C.J. Hart was a car guy’s car guy,” said Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA, on nhra.com.
“Likewise, he was a pioneer’s pioneer in the development of organized drag racing as a community-service activity. He was everybody’s friend, and while we often debated issues involving the sport, his knowledgeable influence on its early rules and procedures were widespread and respected.”
Peggy Hart, a racer as well as a promoter, died in 1980.
Hart was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1999. In 2001, the city of Santa Ana proclaimed April 29 C.J. “Pappy” Hart Day.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Waverley Church, 1702 Fairhaven Ave., in Santa Ana. The family requested no flowers and that any contributions be sent to the Drag Racing Assn. of Women, 4 Hance Dr., Charleston, IL 61920.